Fam-Planning Uproar

Array of organizations signs on to letter urging Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt to reconsider appointment of pro-life, anti-contraceptive doctor to be deputy assistant secretary for population affairs

Twenty-four organizations – including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Organization for Women, and the Union of Concerned Scientists – signed on to a letter sent Nov. 21 to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, urging him to reconsider the appointment of pro-life, anti-contraceptive doctor Eric Keroack to be deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, charged with oversight and administration of the nation's family-planning program funds.

The federal fam-planning program provides reproductive health care – often the most comprehensive preventative care available to low-income, uninsured women – administered with Title X welfare funding, which provides services to more than 5 million women a year, on average. Instead of appointing a more mainstream health care expert to oversee the 35-plus-year-old program, President George W. Bush last week tapped Keroack – a proponent of abstinence-only education who is the medical director for the group A Woman's Concern, which operates several crisis pregnancy centers in the Boston area, which, under Keroack's supervision, do not provide access to birth control or referrals for women seeking birth control.

"The crass commercialization and distribution of birth control is demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality, and adverse to human health and happiness," reads the group's policy on birth control. "AWC also accepts evidence demonstrating that distribution of birth control, especially among adolescents, actually increases … out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion." Better than birth control, according to AWC, is the pursuit of "sexual purity" – or, in AWC speak, "attaining self-mastery through sexual self-restraint."

How exactly that righteous-sounding philosophy makes Keroack the best choice to head up a program dedicated to providing broad access to health care, contraception, and, more generally, medically accurate information is a real mystery. "Given that much of Dr. Keroack's career appears to have been dedicated to dissuading women from availing themselves of family planning services, we believe that Dr. Keroack would neither be inclined nor should he be trusted to carry out and enforce the goals of Title X," reads the letter, signed by a variety of health and family-planning advocates. "We strongly believe that … Keroack's views are out of step with scientific evidence, the mandates of the Title X program, and the 98% of American women who will use birth control during their reproductive lives. Clients seeking contraception, STD testing, information, and counseling have a right to expect health services that reflect sound public health goals rather than a political agenda."

Congressional Democrats – including several likely to head up committees that oversee HHS funding and operations – also voiced concerns about Keroack's appointment in two letters sent to Leavitt, echoing the content of the one penned by the family-planning groups. Nonetheless, it appears that, so far, HHS is standing firm. HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson told reporters this week that Keroack isn't opposed to birth control – he actually prescribed contraceptives while working in private practice – and "did family planning with patients at their request as part of his private physician role," statements that, nicely yet obviously, skim right past Keroack's more recent involvement with the AWC. Further, Pearson told the Washington Post, Keroack was a certified ob-gyn for 10 whole years – though he recently "inadvertently missed" his recertification deadline. Never fear, though. Pearson says Keroack "plans to seek" recertification soon.

What a relief!

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